Our Bikes Ducati 996

Published: 19 January 2015

“It’s like having an affair without being unfaithful”

Exotic, beautiful, and iconic – Richard Newland’s 996 is a love affair that never ages

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped hating Ducatis. It used to be such a vehemently observed dislike, voiced loud and often to anyone who’d listen. I just didn’t get the attraction, and thought that those who did were the ones missing the point, not me.

I think now, looking back, that the penny slid elegantly into the slot for me somewhere in Kent nearing the end of a 300-mile day of riding back in the summer of 2004. I was riding Ducati’s ugliest duckling, the 999, on a group test with an SP-2 and RSV-R, and had been doing everything I could to keep hold of the SP-2 keys all day. Guilt made me release them for the thrash back from the south coast, and something clicked between me and the Triple Nine. It wasn’t an outright ‘Eureka!’ moment, but I can clearly recall doing the last stretch to home on the A21 near Sevenoaks, and the growing feeling of elation, calmness, and easy speed.

I don’t know if the SP-2 had softened me up (I’ve always loved them), but my default position of avoiding Ducatis was suddenly a thing of the past – I’d been converted. But riding and owning are very different propositions, and it was a moment of eBay madness that eventually immersed me in ownership. Like so many before me, my innocence and naivety disappeared with just one click of the mouse.

Two days later I was wheeling my new love affair into the back of a van. The previous owner was £1268 better off, and I had a 1994 900SS to play with. There was no going back. I was in.

Three years later I’d got the SS exactly how I wanted, and the desire was burning bright to get another Ducati. There was only one logical choice: I needed a 916. The search began with hours of online trawling, and asking industry friends to keep an eye out for a bargain, but the insurmountable problem appeared to be the tangible gap between my finances and the price of a good bike. I wasn’t searching for an immaculate garage queen, but even tatty examples were selling for £4000. So I put an appeal out on social media, and a reader contacted me saying he had a 996 that he needed to let go. I was on the hook, but it looked a bit too good for my thin wallet. When he revealed that three grand would seal the deal, I nipped to the bank, jumped in a van, and headed down to Dorset. After giving it a very careful check-over I pulled my best serious face, made my case, and offered £2500. I was actually a bit shocked when he said yes. I’d just bought a 996.

The service history was great for the first few years of its life, but scant thereafter, so I took it straight to Ducati specialist Louigi Moto, and left it in their exceptionally capable hands for a check over, MOT, new tyres, belts, filters and fluids. With it back in my hands a week later, I was nervous of the first ride. A perverse part of me didn’t care if I was disappointed, I’d just keep it in the garage as a beautiful ornament, but I needn’t have worried.

I headed out from home, feeling my way on new tyres and that unfamiliar taught chassis, threaded my way over to the A360 across Salisbury Plain, took a deep breath, and got stuck in.

It may only be the most basic Biposta iteration, but it’s still exotic, and the feeling of carnal indulgence swept through me as the roar built from the SilMoto carbon cans, the 996’s nose eagerly sniffing at the sky and every apex. I got to Stonehenge, turned round, and did the same road again. And again.

A copy of Performance Bikes that I’d had on the shelf since 1999 provided a great suspension set-up guide, and tyres that they could only dream of in 1998 completed the handling improvements. It’s no modern superbike, but I don’t want it to be either. The character – and the love affair – is heightened by knowing the bike implicitly, by its quirks and imperfections, and knowing how to caress it through every corner. The fact that everything is so pure is a massive part of that appeal. Analogue dials sweeping skyward, uncomplicated suspension, no traction control, ABS, fly-by-wire or rider modes; nothing to distract you from simplistic control. It’s a complete antidote to modernity.

Everything about owning this design icon feeds my love of bikes. I never tire of seeing it in the garage, of the lazy churn and burst of thunderous ignition on start-up, of how dense and compact it feels, how at home it is mid-corner, or how its rhythms and sonorous tones get inside your brain. Riding it feels excitingly illicit, like having an affair, without actually being unfaithful.

While my wish list for other additions to the garage never gets any shorter, I still can’t imagine ever letting go of my 996.

Feel the noise

Every Ducati and its dog has got Termignoni cans fitted, and while I wouldn’t baulk at them, I rather like the fact that my 996 is wearing a set of SilMoto carbon fibre cans. The quality is excellent, and the fit perfect – the cans perfectly lined up and symmetrical beneath that evocative seat cowl with its two square red eyes. They sound gloriously deep and mellow, offending no-one and adding so much to the riding experience. I’ve got the original cans, and chip, safely stashed away in a box, too.

Stick to the plan

Back in 1998 there were few tyres that offered great grip and longevity – you got one or the other, and counted yourself lucky. I fitted Bridgestone S20s to my 996, gifting me all the grip I need for road riding (I don’t ride it on track), decent longevity, rapid warm-up times, and good wet performance should I get caught out in a shower. The ravages of time have attacked my 996’s wheels, both having areas where the paint has bubbled and lifted. Once winter sets in I’ll send them off to be stripped and repainted.

Fall and rise

The modern approach to sorting the ever-shifting problems your suspension is expected to cope with is semi-active electronic control, but I rather enjoy simply riding around the limitations of old-school hardware. I still believe in a good set-up though, and used a settings guide printed in sister title Performance Bikes magazine back in 1999. With their settings dialled in, my bike handles really rather well, and while it lacks the sophistication of the latest hardware, it’s only ever properly unsettled by high-speed compressions.

Keeping it fresh

The 996 had a problem with the coating on the rocker arms, which would peel away and float around in your engine oil getting up to no good. When I changed the oil there was nothing nasty floating in it, so I have to assume that mine have been changed. Having covered 33,000 miles, they’d certainly have failed by now if they were the originals. My bike is remarkably standard, and with no engine modifications at all, barring the ECU chip to match the SilMoto cans. When I gave it a service, I even found the original rubber baffles still inside the air tubes!

That’s not right

There were just four non-standard parts on my 996 when I bought it: the SilMoto cans, colour-coded mirrors, a massive single-bubble screen, and a carbon fibre hugger. The screen looked odd, so I replaced it with the bike’s original, while the cans and mirrors have stayed in place (I do have the original exhausts, and black unpainted mirrors). The carbon hugger is a nasty, cheap and flimsy bit of tat. I don’t know the make, but they should be ashamed. On the bright side, it’s doing its job, but will be replaced with a higher quality unit soon.

Going the distance

It’s hard to reconcile the mileage on my 996 with its overall condition, but there’s no hiding from either. The clocks now read 33,689, and the chain of MOTs back this up as genuine. It sounds high, but everything still feels tight and fit, suggesting that it’s never been thrashed or abused. It also clearly had very little in the way of servicing for the eight years preceding my ownership, but it did very few miles, too. It’s had no parts changed or restored, and boasts a lovely patina on the bodywork, chassis and engine. It’s an honest example.

 

The Bike

Claimed weight: 198kg

Seat Height: 790mm

Miles: 33,691

Servicing to date: £489.67

Mods to date: Barnet clutch

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